This week, scientists provided the human race with its first-ever photograph of a black hole. It was a simultaneously terrifying and inspiring thing to see, and evidence of how much we still don’t know about the universe. It also served as a reminder that most of our thoughts and internalized images of outer space don’t come from scientific study—they come from movies.
Claire Denis’s High Life is the French art-house director’s first science-fiction film and her first English script. It depicts outer space in a way we’re not used to seeing on-screen: through the utter absence of visual information. The spaceship is a clunky rectangular box, its interiors are shabby and grimy, and the cosmos is represented by a few sprinkles of light on a black background.
Denis’s story is abstract and nonlinear, and her characters function like allegorical symbols rather than humans. Some will be impressed by the weightiness of Denis’s jag into zero gravity, but for me, High Life was a frustrating experience, a collection of half-developed ideas being sucked into an unfocused void.
A black hole figures significantly in the plot: Monte (played by Robert Pattinson) is one of several convicts sentenced to spend their lives on the spaceship as it circles around the black hole, presumably to draw energy from it and send it back to Earth.
Dr. Dibs (played by Juliette Binoche and a waist-length wig) is either running the show or a fellow criminal; in either case, she eagerly conducts fertility experiments on the passengers—some willing, others less so—with Denis going to lengths to depict the viscera of the various bodily fluids the doctor handles.
There are disturbing incidents of violence and rape, but there’s also a green garden lovingly tended by Tcherny (Andre 3000, otherwise given very little to do), and a recreational masturbation chamber called the Fuck Box.
At the movie’s start, everyone's dead except Monte and a baby girl that is, presumably, his daughter, although in keeping with High Life’s elusiveness, I don’t think that detail is ever definitively drawn. Of course, space is no place for a baby, but perhaps the point is that it’s not really suitable for grown-ups, either.
Denis shuttles us back and forth through time, showing earlier events on the ship (and brief, possibly imagined flashes of Earth) as well as later passages in which the girl is close to adulthood. Throughout, Monte remains a blank slate, although Pattinson is a good enough actor to make his stillness visually interesting.
Nevertheless, High Life wants the audience to do most of the work. To be fair, it contains a few standout sequences that are either weird or shocking enough to stick in viewers’ memories, but long stretches of the movie are as dull as drifting endlessly through nothingness.
The nature of Denis’s provocations is clear: With High Life, she’s drawing a parallel between the desperate boredom of life and its ceaseless ability to perpetuate itself, even amid the most dire of circumstances.
I suppose we’re meant to be awed and terrified by the insignificance of a single life span on that unstoppable continuum. Which is fine, and more thought-provoking than most of the stuff at the multiplex. But I took away just as much—more, actually—from that astonishing new photograph of the black hole.